Making the Break 

1 December 2005

Filming commercials in the early days of ITV.

Mention sprocket holes and telecine to many young people in the industry today and you get blank looks. Few have ever seen film close up – let alone let it run through their fingers when they’re involved in an edit that tests the craft of those employed to cut the celluloid.

Talk to them about lacing up the film in the projector at the six foot mark so that it would reach the correct speed by the time it reached zero – and you get looks of sorrow and pity.

But then, maybe that’s progress. After all, in the modern world of wanting everything now, why wait for the rushes to be processed overnight when you can get immediate playback from a VT machine?

But those of us of ‘a certain age’ didn’t have that benefit and we learned our craft (and editing is a craft) when film ruled the world – and video tape was still being developed (sorry, that film term just slipped in).

Early starts

When I started in the commercials industry in 1961, my job title was ‘messenger’. (Runners were people who ran around athletics tracks for a living or pleasure, not those who made tea or hot-footed it between studios or facilities.) One of the benefits of working in the commercials sector in those early days was that crewing was quite sparse, so even the messenger was able to proceed to the post of assistant editor – and therefore actually touch the film – quite quickly.

Being a messenger meant being at the film laboratory at about 7.30 am to collect the overnight rushes and then getting them back to base ready for showing to director and client at around 9 o’clock.

Before that showing, however, the previous day’s efforts had to be logged. That meant recording in a book (carefully checked by the editor from time to time) the scene and take numbers together with the ‘key numbers’. These were unique numbers recorded at one foot intervals along the negative that enabled the editor and/or the assistant to identify the scene and take – once the identifying slate or clapper board had been removed. They also allowed the negative-cutter to match the scenes when the production was finally ready for printing prior to distribution.

Once in the preview theatre, the director’s observations had to be carefully noted so that we would use the takes that he liked when it came to cutting the piece together. Of course, that was easy when there was a slate board (the silent equivalent of a clapper board) with a scene and take number chalked on it. The task was made more difficult when there were no identifying marks – as was frequently the case when the shoot was on location and the camera was some distance away from the person with the all-important board.

Spotting the shot

Some of the earliest commercials of my experience were like that. One in particular stands out: Super National petrol with ‘Getaway people, get Super National’ as the tag line. The iconic E-Type Jaguar was often featured, along with other fast cars. Of course, they were always driven by suitably good-looking couples. (Actually, on one occasion, the man wasn’t too suitable. He couldn’t drive without glasses – and that wasn’t the image that was needed for the production. The camera operator feared for this life on some of the scenes.)

The cutting ratio (the amount of film shot to the actual footage used) was huge on those productions. Something like 30:1 was common – which meant the poor chap (me) trying to sort out the rushes had a mammoth task back in the cutting room. When the director shouted in the preview theatre ‘That’s the bit to use’, it was a case of trying to work out where, in the 1000 feet of 35mm film of that particular reel, that ’bit’ was situated.

But it was a lot of fun – and those commercials in particular were brilliant. (Not only did they sell petrol, but they also boosted sales for Jaguar.) The editor for them was a chap called Mike Kaufman. He was not always the easiest of people with whom to work, but a very good editor and I happily acknowledge that I learned a great deal from him about the craft.

In those days splices were held together with film cement. Although the system worked well, it was a great relief when the edits could be joined together with clear sticky tape.

But old habits die hard – and one ad agency producer, who had been an editor in a former life, insisted that all her commercials be cut using a cement joiner.

Fitting the sound

Many of the commercials in those days didn’t include lip sync scenes. That meant the editing process followed a pattern unfamiliar to our colleagues in feature films. First, the silent footage was cut and, once approved by the director and advertising agency, the timing of each shot was given to the music composer so that changes in scene could be reflected in the score.

Once the music was recorded, the good editors would then make the minor changes to the picture to ensure that cuts or other significant action happened on the beat or where a specific musical phrase was used. Often the changes would only affect one or two frames, but it made all the difference to the look of the commercial. Sadly, cutting to music is a lost art today.

A tape editor I used on a corporate production a few years ago didn’t even know what I meant when I said I wanted the title sequence cut to music.

Not only does cutting to music make the production look better, but it also makes a commercial more successful! That’s a bold statement, but one that can be backed up with facts.

The production company for whom I worked was asked to take material shot by another company and make the commercial ‘work’. It seems that the original producer had not bothered to have the pictures re-cut after music and commentary recording and, as such, the film looked sloppy. Sales of the product had actually fallen when the commercial was shown. We re-edited the film, using the same footage and the same music and voice over – this time matching in the pictures with the sound – in particular, cutting on the beat.

The revised commercial was aired – and sales rose. If you had asked the viewing audience to explain the difference, they would probably not have been able to answer. But the fact remains that when the pictures and sound work against each other, confusion is created. When they work together, harmony reigns – and the audience feels better about the product.

When I reached the dizzy heights of being an editor myself, I always insisted that I recut the pictures to fit the sound – whether it was music or voice. I appreciate the difficulty of carrying out that operation with tape-to-tape editing – but there is no excuse not to craft a finished production today using non-linear systems.

Moving into tape

Not that I am against tape. In fact, when the production company for whom I was working took its initial steps into tape, I was allowed to direct the first production. In those days, tape editing was a bit of a messy process, so, I decided to shoot the 45 second commercial ‘as live’. No problem there – except there were 28 scenes and the whole thing had to be cut to music. Fortunately, it was studio-based: with some careful rehearsing – and carrying out my own vision mixing – we did achieve the desired result. And with no editing!


While I was still a film editor, tape certainly rescued a production that would have otherwise missed its airing.

We were called on a Wednesday afternoon to the agency. They had a 60 second spot booked that Saturday for a most important client. But they didn’t have a new commercial to show. Worse, the proposed idea involved a shoot on film in Cornwall – and we were in London. And even more difficult – each scene had to mix, rather than cut, to the next. Creating mixes in film laboratories could take up to a week.

Hurried arrangements were made to shoot the next day. While the crew was in the south-west, recording the sound tracks was carried out in London.

Two sets of rushes from the shoot were requested – and the film was picked up very early on Friday morning. With the music and voice-over in existence, I cut the film from the first set of rushes to match the sound. By late morning, the cut was finished and approved. There was no chance to get the mixes made, the negatives cut and the prints made for transmission the next day – so that’s where the second set of rushes came in.

I cut the clean set of film to match the approved version using the A B roll method. That is, scene one was on roll A, scene two roll B, scene three roll A and so on. We then took the two rolls to a tape production facility where two telecine machines were locked together. We were then able to mix electronically between the two rolls of film to create the desired effect.

The commercial was shown on time on Saturday.

Happy times

Our average production rate was around 100 commercials a year. And that was pretty good going. Editing a 30-second commercial would take about a day – but then the music recording, voice over, dubbing and client approvals would take up to several weeks. And once that was completed, multiple copies of each commercial had to be made at the laboratories.

Each TV station required a copy for each showing within a certain period of time, plus one back up copy. That meant print orders of 100 or more were not uncommon to cover all the regions. And each copy had to be checked before despatch – quite a labour-intensive operation.

Editing commercials is, of course, very different today. But the ‘good old days’ were a golden time – and the folk who directed and edited those early commercials were in a class of their own. I, for one, am pleased to have been associated with that era.

But then, has the memory of all the problems of those days become lost in the mists of time? Perhaps so – but it was still a good time to be have been involved with the still relatively new world of TV commercials.

Philip Stevens moved into television directing in the early 1970s. His credits include news, special events such as election OBs and the Queen Mother’s Lying in State, various sports, business programmes and parliamentary coverage. He has worked extensively in home shopping, where alongside gallery directing and producing, he has helped launch five channels. He is currently working as a freelance director/producer and is a regular contributor to TVB Europe magazine.

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